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Golden Gate Seminary Plan

Supervisors Bring Back their Version of the Affordable Housing Combining District Amendment

On July 21st, the Marin County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to amend the Affordable Housing Combining District (AH District) in the County Development Code and lower the residential density of the designation from 30 units per acre to 20 units per acre, to reflect the reduced default density of 20 units per acre allowed by Assembly Bill 1537. (Mark Levine's Assembly Bill 1537 lowered the default density for housing sites identified for lower income households in Marin County's Housing Element from the "Metropolitan" density of 30 units per acre to the "Suburban" density of 20 units per acre.) In so doing, the Supervisors overturned the County Planning Commission's prior decision to keep the density of the AH District at 30 units per acre. However, the move did little to reduce housing development potential or the potential adverse impacts associated with such development.

The AH District applies to portions of three sites in Unincorporated Marin: 1) The Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary Site in Strawberry; 2) The St. Vincent's / Silveira Site in North San Rafael; and 3) The Drake Ave. Site in Marin City.

Housing Development Potential Remains Almost the Same
With a 4 to 1 vote (Damon Connolly voted "Nay"), the Supervisors also approved increasing the size of the portion of two sites (the St. Vincent's /Silveira Site and the Marin City Site) where the AH District would apply. (For instance, before the amendment, the AH District's 30 units per acre applied to 3.5 acres of the St. Vincent's/ Silveira Site. After the amendment, the new AH District's 20 units per acre applies to 5 acres of the Site.) As a result, the Supervisors kept the housing development potential at the two sites the same, while increasing the risks of adverse environmental impacts due to enlarging the potential footprint of future development.

Only at the Seminary Site, were the AH District's potential buildout and impacts reduced. At this Site the Supervisors lowered the residential density to 20 units per acre and kept the applicable acreage the same. Although, according to Attorney Riley Hurd, there is other existing zoning at the Seminary Site that may still allow higher densities.

It is important to remember that the AH District is an overlay zoning that allows for clustering of units and that sits on top of the primary zoning of a site. If the residential density of the AH District is changed, it does not necessarily change the residential density of the primary zoning of the site. Therefore, unless the residential density of the primary zoning district is reduced along with that of the AH District zoning, the AH District may not lower the potential buildout at a site.

Another aspect of the new amendment is it may expand where the AH District would be applied. The AH District was originally intended to only apply to Sites identified in a County Housing Element. The Marin County Development Code stated; "The AH Combining District shall apply to those eligible sites named in the Housing Element of the Countywide Plan". However, this sentence was eliminated. With the amendment, the Development Code now states; "The AH Combining District applies to the sites listed below: St. Vincent's / Silveira; Marin City Community Development Corp.; and Golden Gate Seminary." The Golden Gate Seminary Site is not included in the Site Inventory of the County Housing Element. This could set a precedent for the AH District to be applied to other sites not listed in a County Housing Element, provided the Supervisors approve the designation with another vote.

Public attendance was split between those who lobbied for maintaining the metropolitan density of 30 dwelling units per acre for the AH District and those who advocated for the suburban density of 20 units per acre. Pro-developer advocates stated that maintaining the 30 units per acre was necessary for the financial feasibility of affordable housing. Pro-low-density advocates stated that lowering the residential density to 20 units per acre or lower, without increasing any applicable acreage, would help maintain Marin's traditional character, lower potential adverse environmental impacts, and show the State that the County could provide affordable housing at lower densities, which would help renew AB 1537 when it expires.

Supervisor Connolly embraced the need for affordable housing but also stated that it must be provided in a way that was right for Marin, such as conversions, second units, junior units and other low intensity types of development. Other Supervisors echoed Connolly's sentiments.

Breaking from the views of the other Supervisors, Connolly alone affirmed that his main objective for the St. Vincent's / Silveira Site was preservation rather than development. Connolly was also the only Supervisor who opposed increasing the acreage (and sprawl) where the AH District would apply. He questioned whether or not the AH District was the best tool to promote affordable housing. He further noted that the overlay designation was complicated and difficult for the Planning Commission and residents to understand.

Residents' request that other County residential zoning also be lowered to 20 units or lower was not addressed by the Supervisors. Planning Director Brian Crawford briefly warned that lowering other zoning from 30 units to 20 units or lower would not be prudent because AB 1537 will sunset in 2023. Therefore, unless the bill is renewed, in 2023 the next County Housing Element will need to identify additional sites at 30 units per acre. He further warned that if sites were lowered to 20 units per acre, it would be difficult to up-zone them again to 30 units per acre in the future due to public opinion. However, according to Pro-low-density advocates, Crawford's comment did not make sense because AB 1537's default density only applies to a few sites identified for lower income households in a County Housing Element. There is no reason to depend on the Bill to lower the residential density of the majority of sites in Unincorporated Marin.